Editor’s Note: “Stage Write/Stage Wrong” is a continuing series by Madison Magazine theater reviewer Aaron R. Conklin about those occasions when live performances do not go entirely according to the stage directions. Most actors, directors and designers have the grace and style to appreciate and/or survive dropped lines, stumbles and misbehaving props, but it's the confident ones who are willing to relive and share those experiences with us.
American Players Theater stalwart Jonathan Smoots, whose career traces back to the earliest days of the Spring Green troupe, has enough acting anecdotes to fill an encyclopedia. But there are two in particular that really stick in his head.
One of Smoots’ first APT appearances was in a production of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” in which APT co-founder Randall Duk Kim played the inimitable Falstaff. Smoots played Pistol, one of Falstaff’s bumbling men-at-arms. At one point in the play, Falstaff and Pistol enter the stage, arguing about the loan of some money.
On this occasion, Kim was onstage and ready to roll. Smoots, unfortunately, was still in the company’s dressing room, about a block behind the stage, removing the jacket of his costume to give himself some relief from the sweltering summer heat.
“I remember somebody saying, ‘Don’t you have an entrance coming up?’” says Smoots.
Just then, over the dressing room’s speaker monitor, Smoots heard Duk Kim, in his booming Falstaff voice, bellowing “PISTOL!"
In a panic, Smoots sprinted from the dressing room—shouting “My lord! My lord!’ the whole way—to arrive onstage, huffing and puffing, to pick up the scene.
“I never ran so fast in my entire life,” Smoots chuckles.
Smoots later learned that Duk Kim had tried to buy his castmate as much time as possible, walking down the stairs slowly and stopping to polish an apple before languidly taking a bite or two out of it.
“Back in the day, we were all in awe and fearful of Randy,” says Smoots. “I was afraid he was going to rip into me.”
Not so. Duk Kim brushed the gaffe off, telling Smoots that it happens to everyone at some point. In the intervening years, Smoots has done his best to make sure that he's never blown another cue.
“I’m so fearful of missing an entrance now,” he says. “I can only devote a third of my attention to anything else. My mind is always in the play.”
Smoots often is asked, during audience talkback sessions, about his favorite role. His answer never wavers: It’s Mercutio in APT’s 1984 production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
These were the halcyon days when Shakespeare offerings at APT were performed uncut, exactly as they appeared in the First Folio. This was also back when standing ovations by an audience were rare and not expected.
Smoots instinctually understood his brash and bawdy character, and especially appreciated his, um, unfiltered sense of humor.
“Mercutio tells more dirty jokes than anyone in Shakespeare,” he says. “They’re just filthy.”
One afternoon, Smoots and the company were performing for a sold-out student matinee. There was unusual magic on stage.
“I could tell the audience was identifying with this upstart, anti-authoritarian figure,” Smoots recalls. Better yet, they were also snickering at all of Mercutio’s jokes.
When the curtain call hit, something remarkable happened.
“En masse, this audience of young people stood up,” says Smoots. “It’s the first time I had ever seen anything like this. It was thrilling.”
Smoots is set to appear in APT's production of Georges Feydeau's " A Flea in Her Ear," opening in June.
Aaron R. Conklin covers the Madison theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.